Summary: This article was written and published March ’16.
The following teaching began as a letter I wrote to a friend, but I found in it the beginning thoughts for an expanded article on the topic of dispensationalism. I felt the content provided a simple explanation of thoughts I’ve had, hopefully guided by the Spirit of God, about an improved understanding of dispensationalism, and beyond this, even the development of a new and better theological system simply based on the two Adams (comments on this better system will have to wait for a later article). As a theological system, dispensationalism has changed over time from its original understandings. The original teachers, in my opinion, were Darby and Kelly. What they taught and brought out in the mid 1800’s is what I would refer to as the original understandings of dispensationalism – true classic dispensationalism. However, today the system has distanced itself fairly far from its original foundations. Now we have many variations and versions – Revised dispensationalism, Progressive dispensationalism, even Ultra-Progressive dispensationalism.
(Here my letter to my friend begins) When I get breaks I plan on answering some of your other questions and statements from your email. In the letter I wrote to the seminary I commented on a desire I have in developing a new system of theological understanding (a system, though I do not like the word) based on the two Adams. This is not something developed or even in place in Protestantism – as you know the two big recognized systems are Covenant theology and dispensationalism. We might also throw in a Biblical system that emphasizes kingdom theology in the development of the kingdom of God through time and man’s history. Kingdom theology however, is often well mixed in with Dispensationalism. I am not sure how much kingdom theology has seeped into Covenant theology, it must have to some extent.
I am a dispensationalist of sorts, although I would be found arguing with most dispensationalists, especially with the more contemporary and progressive ones. It is a very loose system with little agreement among dispensationalists as to a settled structure or outline. I even find among them a failure in understanding what should be the proper definition of a dispensation, how one actually defines it, etc. So I write in correction of Dispensationalism as much as I do of Covenant theology principles. I get the impression you lean to covenant theology and their replacement theology ideas. That’s fine if this be the case. I still want to have someday deep and in-depth discussions with you. I’m pretty sure a covenant theologian and a dispensationalist can be brothers in Christ and friends, for we are both members of the one body and members one of another, and under the one command of Christ.
For me a dispensation is obviously a period of time, non-precise as it may be as to its exact beginning and end, in which God has given a particular and specific human responsibility to a large corporate group in which this group represents or testifies for God to the world, and God looks for obedience in this representation from that group in that time. A dispensation is always more than a simple period of time, but always involves the principle of human responsibility look at by God. What He expects is obedience of the creature to Himself, the Creator. God is looking for obedience to His will by the creature, who is fully aware of the existence of a relationship between himself as the creature and God the Creator.
Every dispensation begins with a distinctive manifestation of the glory of God, His sovereign work and grace displayed. Then the corporate body is given responsibility to care for the work, the testimony of it before the world. Then there is decline from the practical faith of that original displayed divine glory, moving on to corruption, ruin, and apostasy. The dispensation continues on only by the mercy and longsuffering of God. Eventually the corruption ripens to its full, and God brings in judgment. However, the judgment of God will always be preceded by testimony, that they who have ears to hear may escape the judgment. This judgment from God ends the dispensation. This has been the pattern of the ways of God for the Jewish dispensation, as well as the Christian dispensation that followed, that which we are presently in.
Consequently, all dispensations fail in human responsibility, and this, usually at the outset of the dispensation. Then the dispensation carries on in the longsuffering and mercy of God, until His longsuffering ends and the evil has been filled up. This is how all dispensations end, and this ending is always by judgment from God of the evil – that is, the failure of man given the particular responsibility in the dispensation. Every dispensation of man ends in failure and judgment from God, every single one except the last dispensation, which will be held up and sustained by the power of God in the perfect and glorified Son of Man physically present on the earth.
I know you will think I’m crazy, but with these distinctive principles we can find in Scripture three different dispensational systems that are what I would consider quite biblical in character – that is, anyone should be able to easily see these three systems from Scripture according to the above definitions. As I said, very few contemporary dispensationalists would actually adhere to the definition of what a dispensation really is, as well as the predicted consequences I outline. So most modern dispensationalists play loose with these definitions, do not identify the human responsibility being tested by God, and just start picking time periods and labeling them with no rhyme or reason. Nobody today teaches anything like the three different systems I have found as seen in scripture; at least I am not aware of them.
There is another important general character of dispensations I would be remiss if I failed to point it out. Actually this characteristic is equally true of covenants as well. It is that both dispensations and covenants only speak of earthly things. Both are earthly in character and involve God bringing in earthly blessings. With dispensations the great principle under the eye of God being looked at is human responsibility or creature responsibility (all the same). Will man obey in the specific responsibility he has been given to care for? As mentioned above, usually man’s failure comes in at the beginning, and then the continuance of the dispensation becomes dependent on the longsuffering and patience of God. When this comes to an end, God judges the human failure. This judgment is always on the earth, so then, in this sense the judgment is always earthly. I know this may sound like a strange way to describe things, and may take some time to get familiar with, but still, it is very accurate and biblically characteristic to define covenants and dispensations as earthly. They never describe heavenly things ( John 3:12).
I always find that the best and deepest biblical understandings are given to us when we comprehend the contrasts and distinctions God makes between things in scripture. In general, if we hold a theological system with a pervading human philosophy of making everything the same, only ever one people of God and such monotonous understandings, then we deny, in principle, the sovereign choice of God in His grace and workmanship. So I can go on to say that human responsibility is always looked at by God as to what man does on the earth – his works, his sins, his law keeping, his righteousnesses that are filthy rags, his building with wood, hay, and stubble – all representing his varied responsibilities through differing dispensations, certainly different groups responsible, and the judgment of these responsibilities will always be there, that is, on the earth.
The easy and clear example of this is in considering the Jewish dispensation – the period of time from Israel’s birth and deliverance as a nation out of Egypt through the presentation of Messiah to them. This time is represented in scriptures beginning with Exodus and carrying on through the three synoptic gospels. I exclude John’s gospel because the Holy Spirit’s perspective in John is that Israel, and for that matter the world also, are set aside by God from the first chapter (John 1:10-11). But the three synoptics have, early on in their narratives, the legitimate presentation of Messiah to Israel by God.
We find two distinct and specific responsibilities given to Israel during their dispensation, and if one wants to then make this two dispensations, it doesn’t really matter. For me I label this the Jewish dispensation, and keep things simple by only considering it as one. What is important to proper dispensational thoughts is to identify and clearly see the particular responsibility being tested by God. The first responsibility to be considered is Israel’s obedience to the law. After they had failed in this they were taken into captivity in Babylon, and Jerusalem and the temple destroyed. Israel’s second particular responsibility was to receive their Messiah when God sent Him. However, they crucified the Son of God and put Him to death. This failure brought in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple a second time by the Romans.
God gives an initial blessing of grace at the beginning of the dispensation. For the Jewish dispensation this was the nation’s deliverance out from Egypt by the great displays of God’s power and glory. For the Christian dispensation it was the day of Pentecost – the sending down of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church. Both beginnings were the sovereign work of God – Jehovah brought Israel on eagles wings to Himself at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:4), and at Pentecost for the Christian it was the Holy Spirit coming as a great mighty wind and cloven tongues of fire (Acts. 2:1-4).
These blessings were soon placed under man’s responsibility for his care. God looks at this care of His original work of grace or the corporate body’s first position it held in the dispensation (whether it is Israel as Jehovah’s special chosen people or Christendom as all who profess faith in Jesus Christ). When man has failed in his original responsibility or the corporate body has left its first position, then God begins to consider the fitness of the body in relation to the future glory He has promised. This sequence was true of Israel – first God judged their responsibility under His law, then their responsibility with His presentation of Messiah, and the earthly glory of Israel in a Messianic kingdom. When the Jewish dispensation ended and the Christian dispensation began, we find a similar sequence concerning Christendom – first Pentecost and God’s work in grace at the beginning, and whether Christendom could be responsible for the care of this; then when she left her first position, God begins to judge the fitness of Christendom for the future heavenly glory of the church promised in Christ.
These two different viewpoints of God judging during a dispensation can be seen if we closely examine scripture. For Israel’s dispensation it is seen two different ways from Isaiah’s prophecies. The first way is in chapter five and six. God’s vineyard that is Israel under the law producing useless fruit is depicted in Isaiah five (5). God would destroy and burn His vineyard. I judge this as resulting in the Babylonian captivity among other things at that time. Chapter six (6) shows Isaiah’s vision of the future glory destined for Israel in the Messianic kingdom and Jehovah/Messiah in the temple. John confirms that Isaiah’s vision is of Jesus (John 12:41). The vision is earthly, and of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem during the future millennium. It is not a heavenly vision. But Isaiah six goes on to show that God judges Israel spiritually unfit for this future promised Messianic glory (Isa. 6:9-13). If you doubt that this refers to the time of Jesus coming to Israel, we only need to consider the number of times Isaiah’s prophecies are quoted in the New Testament describing the Jews at the close of their dispensation (John 12:37-40, Matt. 13:14-15, Luke 19:41-44, Acts 28:25-28).
This judgment of Israel’s two distinct responsibilities is also seen by a division of chapters found later on in Isaiah’s book. Chapter 40 – 48:22 is a division of his prophecies which show Israel’s failure under the law through their idolatry. All that the Babylonians inflicted on Israel was their just judgment. Chapter 49 – 57:21 distinctly predicts their rejection of Messiah, for which the Roman destruction of the city and temple in 70 AD is the judgment.
God’s judgments of Israel’s unique responsibilities are seen in other passages. Hosea 1:9 is Israel being set aside by God because of their failure under the law – “Call his name Lo-Ammi, for you are not My people, and I will not be your God.” Many unique things occurred to Israel as resulting from this judgment – they lost the throne of God (the ark), the glory of God leaves the temple, Jerusalem, and the earth, a remnant of Judah goes into captivity, and civil world government is given to the Gentiles. Israel’s failure to receive Messiah and Messianic glory is verbally declared by Jesus Himself in Matthew 23:37-39 – “See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” And it is good to repeat again for a clear understanding, that the physical judgment associated with the two different responsibilities of Israel in their dispensation each resulted in their own separate destructions of Jerusalem and the temple. The Roman destruction paired with the refusal of Messianic glory is again declared by Jesus (Matt. 24:2) – “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” The two different grounds of Israel’s rejection is easily seen in scripture.
In the Christian dispensation there also is seen this double judgmental viewpoint by God. His initial sovereign work of grace at Pentecost starts the dispensation off on solid ground, and the power of God is demonstrably seen outwardly to authenticate the new dispensation (Acts 3:1-10; 3:24-33; 5:12-16, etc.). But all that God establishes in grace must eventually be given into man’s hands and man’s responsibility. Soon men were sleeping and the devil came in and planted tares (Matt. 13:25). Also men soon built with wood, hay, and stubble in the house of God (I Cor. 3). Christendom began to fill with false doctrines (Matt. 13:33). Before the passing of the last apostle Christendom was judged as having left its original position (Pentecost’s blessing) and fallen (Rev. 2:4-5). The Lord demanded that she repent and return to her original place under threat of removing her candlestick (this light representing Christendom’s responsibility on the earth). She never did repent and return, although this option was offered to Christendom by the Lord through the first three epistles and periods of her history on earth. After these first three periods had passed, it was no longer possible for Christendom to return to Pentecost and it original position.
It is vitally important to note that decline and decay began early on in the new dispensation. If we are blind to this and fail to recognize the fall and ruin of Christendom, that the pattern of the failure of the dispensation was repeated in a similar way to Israel’s failures in their dispensation, then we will have no concept and understanding of our true present spiritual condition (corporately). And this blindness, whether deliberate or not, only amounts to denying the testimony of God in His word. When Paul spoke prophetically by the Spirit of God to the Ephesian elders of what would happen after he had passed, was it an encouraging message of the steady improvement of Christendom going on to maturity and perfection? He speaks to them with a great warning, and personal tears. “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31) There is a plethora of New Testament scripture speaking the same testimony from God of the history of Christendom on the earth, so much so that it would require a book to document all of it. So I believe God directed me to write one; my third book, The Corruption and Death of Christendom. In it you will find a comprehensive overview of God’s testimony of the progress and history of Christendom. His testimony is of its ruin, and that the original blessing will never be recovered.
By the fourth epistle and fourth period of her history (Rev. 2:18) the world had sufficiently entered into the professing church and the Lord no longer acknowledges the external corporate structure as vital. From this point on He singles out a believing remnant to encourage instead of the corporate body (Rev. 2:24). These spiritual realities are seen in the numerous ways in which the fourth epistle was altered by the Spirit to be different in comparison to the three previous epistles. This would be too lengthy to explain here, but again, the book does a good job discussing these changes. More to our point here: it is in this fourth epistle and period of her history (Thyatira) in which God’s analysis of Christendom’s responsibility switches from looking at her original position related to Pentecost and any attempts to return there, to her fitness to be a participant in the future glory of Christ at His return. It is in this fourth message that we are given reference to His coming for the first time (Rev. 2:25). And it is significant that in this epistle, where the Lord refuses to recognize the external corporate body, but judges the whole in ruin, that the glory of the future kingdom is held out as the hope for the overcomer, replacing the corrupted professing body (Rev. 2:26-27). Giving the overcomer the morning star is also a definite reference to the future rapture of the true church (Rev. 2:28).
God judges first as to the original position and blessing, and whether the external corporate body has been responsible to maintain that position. After this is proven failed, then God judges the spiritual condition of the body in regard to the future promised glory. This two way judgment of particular responsibility was accomplished by God in both the Jewish and Christian dispensations. It simply is easier to see this outwardly in the Jewish dispensation by the two different destructions of the city and temple. But if the believer is trained to use the eye of faith, Revelation 2; 3 definitely shows this same pattern for the present dispensation. And the seed of man’s failure entered in at the beginning of both dispensations (II Thess. 2:7), where then the only reason for the continuance of the dispensation on in time is through the longsuffering and mercy of God.
The two external corporate bodies given responsibility by God during the two dispensations under consideration in this article are first Israel, and then Christendom. Israel had to be set aside by God in order for God to build the church, and separately, to deal with Christendom. Dispensationalism prides itself in distinguishing between Israel and the church. This is a most important difference in God’s word to maintain. Yet from its initial conception, every development and every progression of dispensational thinking has only been to blur these lines of distinction between the two. Over time Israel is made to be more like the church or the church is made to be more like Israel. Either way the pendulum swings, the mistake carries with it a Judaizing effect. Man’s theological systems have proven accomplished in committing this error in both directions. The replacement teachings of Covenant theology do away with Israel and replaces it with the church. This is quite severe. On the other side, the majority of dispensationalism’s errors are in allowing, more and more, the church to approximate Israel, therefore diminishing their differences by this unhealthy approximation. There is an over concentration in their teachings on Israel’s future, which only results in a diminished understanding of the future of the church. In their revised teachings they have become numb to the true calling of the church, or have lost sight of it entirely. When our true calling is obscured, then it is a small step to substitute an earthly calling for our heavenly one, and we are brought that much closer to being like Israel.
It also is sad how the modern developments of dispensationalism mostly lead to encouraging the believer to walk by sight instead of walking by faith. We are to sit and wait for an outward Messianic form of the kingdom in the world, for this is the only form of the kingdom of God most dispensationalists are willing to acknowledge. If we don’t see with our eyes this type of kingdom in the world, then we teach that the kingdom of God has been postponed today and does not exist. It is a walk by sight we are actually teaching! Unfortunately such a walk also is Jewish – the character of Israel and Judaism is to have a walk by sight and senses (I Cor. 1:22, Rom. 9:30-32, Gal. 3:11-12). If believers cannot walk by faith, or see what is unseen with the eye of faith (II Cor. 4:18; 5:6-7), then by default we walk by sight and very much like the Jews – we are not walking as a Christian should in order to please our Lord (Col. 1:9-14, Eph. 3:10-21, Phil 3:7-21).
Particularly in the dispensationalist’s teachings of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel they mistakenly see Israel where they properly should be seeing Christendom (Matt. 13:24-30; 13:31-33; 13:47, etc.). It is an error. If they judge this as a matter of interpretation, it still remains an error. This is how they want to gloss over the issue and continue to maintain Israel in the center of all their kingdom teaching. Isn’t placing Israel where Christendom is found in scripture just a reverse form of Judaizing the Christian faith? Regardless, there is no error of scripture that ever has the ability to sanctify (John 17:17). We are only sanctified by the truth of God. It is easy to forget the importance of this, and just follow along with the majority.
Also in dispensationalism there exists a great hesitation in any efforts to distinguish the differences between the true church and Christendom in scripture. I attribute this partly to the poor ecclesiology that exists in Protestantism today. I am sometimes amazed when the topic of the church, the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23), is discussed, that so soon the teaching reduces and degrades down to the local church. This is not the church spoken of in New Testament scripture. It is not even a miniature representation of the body of Christ. The local church, all local churches, are only outward forms built by man, much like Christendom is an external form built by men (I Cor. 3:9-15). The local church can only be a miniature form representing Christendom. All local churches, in all their varied forms, Roman or Protestant, orthodox, liberal, or conservative, denominations many, when put together form the conglomerate of the professing church (Christendom). It doesn’t take the believer’s eye of faith to see Christendom in the world. Neither is the eye of faith required to see local churches in the world. All these are the external forms of men. But Christ alone builds the true church of scripture (Matt. 16:18). And the eye of faith of the believer is required to see this hidden in the world (Matt. 13:44-46).
Christendom is not the same thing as the true church, the body of Christ. The differences may be more subtle and less obvious than the differences between the church and Israel, but the error is no less fatal to proper teaching and understanding. But if so many dispensationalists make the mistake of seeing Israel where they should be seeing Christendom, especially in all the Lord’s teachings of the kingdom of heaven unique to Matthew’s gospel, then it becomes even more difficult to get them to go further and make the additional necessary distinction between Christendom and the church.
Any correct theological system has to properly recognize and acknowledge three distinct corporate entities which God has dealt with either in His eternal counsels or in His ways as seen in the world and on the earth. In scripture these three corporate bodies are Israel, Christendom, and the church. Covenant theology makes all three the same in their teachings, which destroys their separate uniqueness as well as denies the choice of God. Dispensationalists attempt to incorporate into their system some measure of proper separation between Israel and the church, but as I’ve discussed above, by all their recent developments and revisions this distinction becomes less and less every day. Now if Covenant theology treats all the same, and dispensationalism is increasingly guilty of obscuring the distinctions between Israel and the church, how will either system properly deal with a third variable, a third corporate entity such as Christendom found in scripture? They simply don’t. They simply will not. Christendom in scripture will not be recognized. Three corporate entities? This would be too difficult, too complicated. And this is what I find – the existence of Christendom is not really acknowledged in their teachings. But God acknowledges it in His word, whether our teachers are willing to acknowledge it or not. And God has given Christendom the responsibility of the entire present dispensation. So this is the problem.
I can’t help but think there are reasons for such denial. Simplicity of the system may be one of the driving forces. Covenant theologians have only one body where all is the same – pretty simple; yet not true. Dispensationalists recognize two corporate bodies – two is simpler than three; yet it is not the whole truth. If we do not acknowledge all three as God does, then our system cannot be correct. Neither of the two big theological systems mentioned acknowledge a corporate Christendom. This has led to a poor ecclesiology in both systems, and the improper and incorrect emphasis of external forms in both Romanism and Protestantism.
Let us look at the three corporate bodies in turn for a better biblical understanding of them, keeping in mind that the best scriptural understandings come when we clearly see the contrasts God makes between different objects in scripture. In the picture drawn by the Lord describing the kingdom of heaven, the spoiled crop is Christendom instead of Israel. Israel is set aside and made desolate, and as such have been scattered into the nations. Christendom is a huge spoiled crop of wheat and tares mixed together and growing in the field of the world (Matt. 13:24-30; 13:36-43). It encompasses the sovereign work of God (the wheat) and the work of the devil (the tares). Men were sleeping which represents human failure in responsibility. This failure allowed Satan to do his work. The crop stays in the same condition until the end of the age, when God brings in judgment. How is this not a picture of the present dispensation? It has all the defining elements proper to dispensational thinking – a large corporate body, human responsibility and its failure, then judgment from God at the end. How is this not a picture of Christendom in the world? Israel was made desolate and burned (Isa. 5, Matt. 23) – they cannot possibly be this crop growing up in the world. The body of Christ has no tares; Christ does not build His church using the devil’s work; this crop is not the true church of scripture. I do not doubt that the body of Christ is contained in this larger corporate structure, even hidden in it; but that does not mean that this larger entity is the church. If the spoiled crop in the field is not Israel, and it is not the church, then what is it? It is Christendom in the world.
Without a clearness of thought in distinguishing Christendom from the true church in New Testament scripture, there will always remain a haziness over our dispensational teachings. And here is the detrimental outcome of the dispensationalist’s non-distinction of Christendom – he has no means of properly identifying the corporate responsibility of a body he refuses to acknowledge. Consequently, he has no clearness of spiritual understanding to recognize the failure of the present dispensation. This is dispensationalism’s greatest error. All they want to recognize is the church, but even fail to do this properly in biblical doctrine. Therefore in their teachings their default setting is the local church. But this is only an external form built by man. All local churches, regardless of their form or what they may be, together form the external body of Christendom. It is this corporate body that has a corporate responsibility which is under the eye of God’s scrutiny during the present dispensation. Christendom’s responsibility is connected with the dispensation and characteristic of it. It is Christendom that will be judged by God. However, the church built by Christ is the sovereign work of God, and as His own workmanship can never be judged by God. But Christendom as the house of God is built by man, and has responsibility as to its profession, and therefore is automatically under the just judgment of God (I Cor. 3). So Peter says, “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God…” What other way possible is there but to understand that Peter is referring to Christendom as the house of God, the very same house Paul spoke of as built by man and subject to the judgment of God (I Pet. 4:17).
These are my thoughts concerning the corrections needed in the theological system known as dispensationalism, and I am hoping they are God’s thoughts as given and taught by the Holy Spirit. They will eventually be expanded from a single article or the few articles I have written on the topic into a book, God willing. It has only been recently that God has impressed upon me the importance of these necessary corrections. But such a task will not be easy, and one runs into resistance sometimes from the most unexpected brothers. It is God’s grace I must have and depend on alone. God bless you for reading.